The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
“Yes, Mamacita.” The look on Mamacita’s face was very hard to bear. She seemed to be asking questions about very hidden thoughts—those thoughts that were not true at all and could never be talked about with anyone. Everything she could remember in her whole life seemed to have melted together in a confusion and misery that could not be explained because it was all changed and uncertain.
She wanted to sit up, take Mamacita around the neck and say, “Something dreadful happened to me—I don’t know what,” but her heart closed up hard and aching, and she sighed with all her breath. Even Mamacita’s breast had become a cold, strange place. Her blood ran back and forth in her, crying terribly, but when the sound came up to her lips it was only a small whimper, like a puppy’s.
“You must not cry any more,” said Mamacita after a long pause. Then: “Good night, my poor child. This impression will pass.” Mamacita’s kiss felt cold on Violeta’s cheek.
Whether the impression passed or not, no word of it was spoken again. Violeta and the family spent the summer in the country. She refused to read Carlos’ poetry, though Mamacita encouraged her to do so. She would not even listen to his letters from Paris. She quarreled on more equal terms with her sister Blanca, feeling that there was no longer so great a difference of experience to separate them. A painful unhappiness possessed her at times, because she could not settle the questions brooding in her mind. Sometimes she amused herself making ugly caricatures of Carlos.
In the early autumn she returned to school, weeping and complaining to her mother that she hated the convent. There was, she declared as she watched her boxes being tied up, nothing to be learned there.
RUBÉN, the most illustrious painter in Mexico, was deeply in love with his model Isabel, who was in turn romantically attached to a rival artist whose name is of no importance.
Isabel used to call Rubén her little “Churro,” which is a sort of sweet cake, and is, besides, a popular pet name among the Mexicans for small dogs. Rubén thought it a very delightful name, and would say before visitors to the studio, “And now she calls me ‘Churro!’ Ha! ha!” When he laughed, he shook in the waistcoat, for he was getting fat.
Then Isabel, who was tall and thin, with long, keen fingers, would rip her hands through a bouquet of flowers Rubén had brought her and scatter the petals, or she would cry, “Yah! yah!” derisively, and flick the tip of his nose with paint. She had been observed also to pull his hair and ears without mercy.
When earnest-minded people made pilgrimages down the narrow, cobbled street, picked their way carefully over puddles in the patio, and clattered up the uncertain stairs for a glimpse of the great and yet so simple personage, she would cry, “Here come the pretty sheep!” She enjoyed their gaze of wonder at her daring.
Often she was bored, for sometimes she would stand all day long, braiding and unbraiding her hair while Rubén made sketches of her, and they would forget to eat until late; but there was no place for her to go until her lover, Rubén’s rival, should sell a painting, for everyone declared Rubén would kill on sight the man who even attempted to rob him of Isabel. So Isabel stayed, and Rubén made eighteen different drawings of her for his mural, and she cooked for him occasionally, quarreled with him, and put out her long, red tongue at visitors she did not like. Rubén adored her.
He was just beginning the nineteenth drawing of Isabel when his rival sold a very large painting to a rich man whose decorator told him he must have a panel of green and orange on a certain wall of his new house. By a felicitous chance, this painting was prodigiously green and orange. The rich man paid him a huge price, but was happy to do it, he explained, because it would cost six times as much to cover the space with tapestry. The rival was happy, too, though he neglected to explain why. The next day he and Isabel went to Costa Rica, and that is the end of them so far as we are concerned.
Rubén read her farewell note:
“Poor old Churro! It is a pity your life is so very dull, and I cannot live it any longer. I am going away with someone who will never allow me to cook for him, but will make a mural with fifty figures of me in it, instead of only twenty. I am also to have red slippers, and a gay life to my heart’s content.
“Your old friend,
When Rubén read this, he felt like a man drowning. His breath would not come, and he thrashed his arms about a great deal. Then he drank a large bottle of tequila, without lemon or salt to take the edge off, and lay down on the floor with his head in a palette of freshly mixed paint and wept vehemently.
After this, he was altogether a changed man. He could not talk unless he was telling about Isabel, her angelic face, her pretty little tricks and ways: “She used to kick my shins black and blue,” he would say, fondly, and the tears would flow into his eyes. He was always eating crisp sweet cakes from a bag near his easel. “See,” he would say, holding one up before taking a mouthful, “she used to call me ‘Churro,’ like this!”
His friends were all pleased to see Isabel go, and said among themselves he was lucky to lose the lean she-devil. They set themselves to help him forget. But Rubén could not be distracted. “There is no other woman like that woman,” he would say, shaking his head stubbornly. “When she went, she took my life with her. I have no spirit even for revenge.” Then he would add, “I tell you, my poor little angel Isabel is a murderess, for she has broken my heart.”
At times he would roam anxiously about the studio, kicking his felt slippers into the shuffles of drawings piled about, gathering dust, or he would grind colors for a few minutes, saying in a dolorous voice: “She once did all this for me. Imagine her goodness!” But always he came back to the window, and ate sweets and fruits and almond cakes from the bag. When his friends took him out for dinner, he would sit quietly and eat huge platefuls of every sort of food, and wash it down with sweet wine. Then he would begin to weep, and talk about Isabel.
His friends agreed it was getting rather stupid. Isabel had been gone for nearly six months, and Rubén refused even to touch the nineteenth figure of her, much less to begin the twentieth, and the mural was getting nowhere.
“Look, my dear friend,” said Ramón, who did caricatures, and heads of pretty girls for the magazines, “even I, who am not a great artist, know how women can spoil a man’s work for him. Let me tell you, when Trinidad left me, I was good for nothing for a week. Nothing tasted properly, I could not tell one color from another, I positively was tone deaf. That shameless cheat-by-night almost ruined me. But you, amigo, rouse yourself, and finish your great mural for the world, for the future, and remember Isabel only when you give thanks to God that she is gone.”
Rubén would shake his head as he sat collapsed upon his couch munching sugared almonds, and would cry:
“I have a pain in my heart that will kill me. There is no woman like that one.”
His collars suddenly refused to meet under his chin. He loosened his belt three notches, and explained: “I sit still; I cannot move any more. My energy has gone to grief.” The layers of fat piled insidiously upon him, he bulged until he became strange even to himself. Ramón, showing his new caricature of Rubén to his friends, declared: “I could as well have drawn it with a compass, I swear. The buttons are bursting from his shirt. It is positively unsafe.”
But still Rubén sat, eating moodily in solitude, and weeping over Isabel after his third bottle of sweet wine at night.
His friends talked it over, concluded that the affair was growing desperate; it was high time someone should tell him the true cause of his pain. But everyone wished the other would be the one chosen. And it came out there was not a person in the group, possibly not one in all Mexico, indelicate enough to do such a thing. They decided to shift the responsibility upon a physician from the faculty of the university. In the mind of such a one would be combined a sufficiently refined sentiment with the highest degree of technical knowledge. This was the diplomatic, the discreet, the
The doctor found Rubén seated before his easel, facing the half-finished nineteenth figure of Isabel. He was weeping, and between sobs he ate spoonfuls of soft Toluca cheese, with spiced mangos. He hung in all directions over his painting-stool, like a mound of kneaded dough. He told the doctor first about Isabel. “I do assure you faithfully, my friend, not even I could capture in paint the line of beauty in her thigh and instep. And, besides, she was an angel for kindness.” Later he said the pain in his heart would be the death of him. The doctor was profoundly touched. For a great while he sat offering consolation without courage to prescribe material cures for a man of such delicately adjusted susceptibilities.
“I have only crass and vulgar remedies”—with a graceful gesture he seemed to offer them between thumb and forefinger—“but they are all the world of flesh may contribute toward the healing of the wounded spirit.” He named them one at a time. They made a neat, but not impressive, row: a diet, fresh air, long walks, frequent violent exercise, preferably on the crossbar, ice showers, almost no wine.
Rubén seemed not to hear him. His sustained, oblivious murmur flowed warmly through the doctor’s solemnly rounded periods:
“The pains are most unendurable at night, when I lie in my lonely bed and gaze at the empty heavens through my narrow window, and I think to myself, ‘Soon my grave shall be narrower than that window, and darker than that firmament,’ and my heart gives a writhe. Ah, Isabelita, my executioner!”
The doctor tiptoed out respectfully, and left him sitting there eating cheese and gazing with wet eyes at the nineteenth figure of Isabel.
The friends grew hopelessly bored and left him more and more alone. No one saw him for some weeks except the proprietor of a small café called “The Little Monkeys” where Rubén was accustomed to dine with Isabel and where he now went alone for food.
Here one night quite suddenly Rubén clasped his heart with violence, rose from his chair, and upset the dish of tamales and pepper gravy he had been eating. The proprietor ran to him. Rubén said something in a hurried whisper, made rather an impressive gesture over his head with one arm, and, to say it as gently as possible, died.
His friends hastened the next day to see the proprietor, who gave them a solidly dramatic version of the lamentable episode. Ramón was even then gathering material for an intimate biography of his country’s most eminent painter, to be illustrated with large numbers of his own character portraits. Already the dedication was composed to his “Friend and Master, Inspired and Incomparable Genius of Art on the American Continent.” “But what did he say to you,” insisted Ramón, “at the final stupendous moment? It is most important. The last words of a great artist, they should be very eloquent. Repeat them precisely, my dear fellow! It will add splendor to the biography, nay, to the very history of art itself, if they are eloquent.”
The proprietor nodded his head with the air of a man who understands everything.
“I know, I know. Well, maybe you will not believe me when I tell you that his very last words were a truly sublime message to you, his good and faithful friends, and to the world. He said, gentlemen: ‘Tell them I am a martyr to love. I perish in a cause worthy the sacrifice. I die of a broken heart!’ and then he said, ‘Isabelita, my executioner!’ That was all, gentlemen,” ended the proprietor, simply and reverently. He bowed his head. They all bowed their heads.
“That was truly magnificent,” said Ramón, after the correct interval of silent mourning. “I thank you. It is a superb epitaph. I am most gratified.”
“He was also supremely fond of my tamales and pepper gravy,” added the proprietor in a modest tone. “They were his final indulgence.”
“That shall be mentioned in its place, never fear, my good friend,” cried Ramón, his voice crumbling with generous emotion, “with the name of your café, even. It shall be a shrine for artists when this story is known. Trust me faithfully to preserve for the future every smallest detail in the life and character of this great genius. Each episode has its own sacred, its precious and peculiar interest. Yes, truly, I shall mention the tamales.”
AND, Madame Blanchard, believe that I am happy to be here with you and your family because it is so serene, everything, and before this I worked for a long time in a fancy house—maybe you don’t know what is a fancy house? Naturally. . . everyone must have heard sometime or other. Well, Madame, I work always where there is work to be had, and so in this place I worked very hard all hours, and saw too many things, things you wouldn’t believe, and I wouldn’t think of telling you, only maybe it will rest you while I brush your hair. You’ll excuse me too but I could not help hearing you say to the laundress maybe someone had bewitched your linens, they fall away so fast in the wash. Well, there was a girl there in that house, a poor thing, thin, but well-liked by all the men who called, and you understand she could not get along with the woman who ran the house. They quarreled, the madam cheated her on her checks: you know, the girl got a check, a brass one, every time, and at the week’s end she gave those back to the madam, yes, that was the way, and got her percentage, a very small little of her earnings: it is a business, you see, like any other—and the madam used to pretend the girl had given back only so many checks, you see, and really she had given many more, but after they were out of her hands, what could she do? So she would say, I will get out of this place, and curse and cry. Then the madam would hit her over the head. She always hit people over the head with bottles, it was the way she fought. My good heavens, Madame Blanchard, what confusion there would be sometimes with a girl running raving downstairs, and the madam pulling her back by the hair and smashing a bottle on her forehead.
It was nearly always about the money, the girls got in debt so, and if they wished to go they could not without paying every sou marqué. The madam had full understanding with the police; the girls must come back with them or go to the jails. Well, they always came back with the policemen or with another kind of man friend of the madam: she could make men work for her too, but she paid them very well for all, let me tell you: and so the girls stayed on unless they were sick; if so, if they got too sick, she sent them away again.
Madame Blanchard said, “You are pulling a little here,” and eased a strand of hair: “and then what?”
Pardon—but this girl, there was a true hatred between her and the madam. She would say many times, I make more money than anybody else in the house, and every week were scenes. So at last she said one morning, Now I will leave this place, and she took out forty dollars from under her pillow and said, Here’s your money! The madam began to shout, Where did you get all that, you——? and accused her of robbing the men who came to visit her. The girl said, Keep your hands off or I’ll brain you: and at that the madam took hold of her shoulders, and began to lift her knee and kick this girl most terribly in the stomach, and even in her most secret place, Madame Blanchard, and then she beat her in the face with a bottle, and the girl fell back again into her room where I was making clean. I helped her to the bed, and she sat there holding her sides with her head hanging down, and when she got up again there was blood everywhere she had sat. So then the madam came in once more and screamed, Now you can get out, you are no good for me any more: I don’t repeat all, you understand it is too much. But she took all the money she could find, and at the door she gave the girl a great push in the back with her knee, so that she fell again in the street, and then got up and went away with the dress barely on her.
After this the men who knew this girl kept saying, Where is Ninette? And they kept asking this in the next days, so that the madam could not say any longer, I put her out because she is a thief. No, she began to see she was wrong to send this Ninette away, and then she said, She will be back in a few days, don’t trouble yourself.
And now, Madame Blanchard, if you wish to hear, I come to the strange part, the thing recalled to me when you said your linens were bewitched. Fo
Madame Blanchard closed her perfume bottle with a thin click: “Yes, and then?”
Then in seven nights the girl came back and she looked very sick, the same clothes and all, but happy to be there. One of the men said, Welcome home, Ninette! and when she started to speak to the madam, the madam said, Shut up and get upstairs and dress yourself. So Ninette, this girl, she said, I’ll be down in just a minute. And after that she lived there quietly.